The Long Winter (Chapter 7)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
One afternoon a little crowd of men gathered in Harthorn’s store in town. The trains, which had been stopped by the blizzard, were running again, and men had come in to town from their claims to buy some groceries and hear the news.
Royal and Almanzo Wilder had come from their homesteads, Almanzo driving his own fine team of matched Morgans, the best team in all that country. Mr. Boast was there, standing in the middle of the little crowd and setting it laughing when he laughed. Pa had walked in with his gun on his arm, but he had not seen so much as a jackrabbit, and now he was waiting while Mr. Harthorn weighed the piece of salt pork that he had had to buy instead.
No one heard a footstep, but Pa felt that someone was behind him and he turned to see who it was. Then suddenly Mr. Boast stopped talking. All the others looked to see what Mr. Boast saw, and they stood up quickly from the cracker boxes and the plow. Almanzo slid down from the counter. Nobody said anything.
It was only an Indian, but somehow the sight of him kept them all quiet. He stood there and looked at them, at Pa, at Mr. Boast, at Royal Wilder and each of the other men, and finally at Almanzo.
He was a very old Indian. His brown face was carved in deep wrinkles and shriveled on the bones, but he stood tall and straight. His arms were folded under a gray blanket, holding it wrapped around him. His head was shaved to a scalp-lock and an eagle’s feather stood up from it. His eyes were bright and sharp. Behind him the sun was shining on the dusty street and an Indian pony stood there waiting.
“Heap big snow come,” this Indian said.
The blanket slid on his shoulder and one naked brown arm came out. It moved in a wide sweep, to north, to west, to east, and gathered them all together and swirled.
“Heap big snow, big wind,” he said.
“How long?” Pa asked him.
“Many moons,” the Indian said. He held up four fingers, then three fingers. Seven fingers, seven months; blizzards for seven months.
They all looked at him and did not say anything.
“You white men,” he said. “I tell-um you.”
He showed seven fingers again. “Big snow.” Again, seven fingers. “Big snow.” Again seven fingers.“Heap big snow, many moons.”
Then he tapped his breast with his forefinger. “Old! Old! I have seen!” he said proudly.
He walked out of the store to his waiting pony and rode away toward the west.
“Well, I’ll be jiggered,” Mr. Boast said.
“What was that about seven big snows?” Almanzo asked. Pa told him. The Indian meant that every seventh winter was a hard winter and that at the end of three times seven years came the hardest winter of all. He had come to tell the white men that this coming winter was a twenty-first winter, that there would be seven months of blizzards.
“You suppose the old geezer knows what he’s talking about?” Royal wanted to know. No one could answer that.
“Just on the chance,” Royal said, “I say we move in to town for the winter. My feed store beats a claim shanty all hollow for wintering in. We can stay back there till spring. How’d it suit you, Manzo?”
“Suits me,” said Almanzo.
“How do you feel about moving in to town, Boast?” Pa asked.
Mr. Boast slowly shook his head. “Don’t see how we could. We’ve got too much stock cattle and horses, and chickens. There’s no place in town to keep them even if I could afford to pay rent. We’re fixed pretty well for the winter on the claim. I guess Ellie and I better stay with it.”
Everyone was sober. Pa paid for his groceries and set out, walking quickly toward home. Now and then he looked back at the northwest sky. It was clear and the sun was shining.
Ma was taking bread from the oven when Pa came in. Carrie and Grace had run to meet him; then came in with him. Mary went on quietly sewing but Laura jumped up.
“Is anything wrong, Charles?” Ma asked, tipping the good-smelling loaves from the pan onto a clean white cloth. “You’re home early.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Pa answered. “Here are your sugar and tea and a bit of salt pork. I didn’t get a rabbit. Not a thing’s wrong,” he repeated, “but we’re moving to town as quick as we can. I’ve got to haul in hay, first, for the stock. I can haul one load before dark if I hustle.”
“Goodness, Charles!” Ma gasped, but Pa was on his way to the stable. Carrie and little Grace stared at Ma and at Laura and at Ma again. Laura looked at Ma and Ma looked helplessly at her.
“Your Pa never did such a thing before,” Ma said.
“Nothing’s wrong, Ma. Pa said so,” Laura answered. “I must run help him with the hay.”
Ma came out to the stable, too, and Pa talked to her while he slapped the harness on the horses.
“It’s going to be a hard winter,” Pa said. “If you must have the truth, I’m afraid of it. This house is nothing but a claim shanty. It doesn’t keep out the cold, and look what happened to the tar-paper in the first blizzard. Our store building in town is boarded and papered, sided on the outside and ceiled on the inside. It’s good and tight and warm, and the stable there is built warm too.”
“But what’s the need to hurry so?” Ma asked.
“I feel like hurrying,” Pa said. “I’m like the muskrat, something tells me to get you and the girls inside thick walls. I’ve been feeling this way for some time, and now that Indian…”
“What Indian?” Ma asked him. She looked as if she were smelling the smell of an Indian whenever she said the word. Ma despised Indians. She was afraid of them, too.
“There’s some good Indians,” Pa always insisted. Now he added, “And they know some things that we don’t. I’ll tell you all about it at supper, Caroline.”
They could not talk while Pa pitched hay from the stack and Laura trampled it down in the rack. The hay rose higher under her fast-moving legs until the load was tall above the horses’ backs.
“I’ll handle it by myself in town,” Pa said. “Town’s no place for a girl to be doing a boy’s work.”
So Laura slid down from the high top of the load into what was left of the haystack, and Pa drove away. The Indian summer afternoon was warm and sweet-smelling and still. The low ripples of softly-colored land stretched far away and the sky was gentle over them. But under the softness and gentleness there was something waiting. Laura knew what Pa meant.
“‘Oh, that I had the wings of a bird!’” Laura thought of those words in the Bible. If she had had the wings of a bird, she, too, would have spread them and flown, fast, fast, and far away.
She went soberly to the house to help Ma. None of them had wings; they were only moving to town for the winter. Ma and Mary did not mind, but Laura knew she would not like to live among so many people.